How to stop sore ribs while surfing

Sore ribs while surfing often called ‘rib rash’ is common amongst people new to the sport and surfers who have had a prolonged break from the ocean. Although painful it will normally pass after a few surfs when your body and chest become accustomed to paddling.

If you’ve spent the majority of your life surfing cold water waves you’ll be all too familiar with the perils of surfing in warmer destinations. Surfing without a wetsuit is liberating but there’s a painful toll to be paid.

Why do you get sore ribs surfing?

Getting sore ribs when you’re surfing can make every paddle feel like an ordeal and sap all the fun out of it, even when the sun’s out and the conditions are perfect.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why you might be getting sore ribs while you surf and some of the ways you can prevent it in the future.

You’re learning to surf

When you’re initially introduced to surfing your body will need to get used to some of the core movements involved and the stresses they put on your body.

Learning to paddle while lying down on a surfboard is a key step in your surfing progression. While the act of paddling shares some similarities with front crawl while swimming, the addition of a flotation device (your surfboard) and the necessity to balance makes it an altogether different experience.

The downward pressure of your body weight and the repetitive motion of paddling while trying to reach waves further out all adds up to put stress on your ribs.

This can lead to one or both of the following:

Sore bruised ribs – Learning to surf you’ll likely experience some pain and discomfort around your rib area from lying on your surfboard. This is primarily the result of lying on your chest for a relatively long period of time, something we rarely do in day to day life.

The discomfort will normally dissipate after a few days as your ribs become accustomed to paddling on a surfboard. If your rib pain persists or you want to avoid it all together read on for tips on how to stop rib pain while surfing.

Rib rash – Rib rash relates to the abrasion caused by your ribs rubbing up and down on the deck of your surfboard and wax. This can lead to nasty grazes if not acted upon and despite not looking very painful they can be surprisingly agonising when combined with sand and saltwater.

Try to avoid getting lots of sand in your wax job, this can act like sandpaper and if you’re not wearing a wetsuit or a rash vest it can quickly irritate your chest and nipples.

You haven’t surfed for a long time

Taking some time off from surfing because of an injury or life circumstances is often unavoidable. Getting back into the ocean after a prolonged break can be an amazing feeling but your body may have lost some of its fitness and conditioning.

Every time you surf you harden up your ribs and skin but with long periods out of the water your body will lose this layer of protection and it may take a few surfs to build it back up again.

You normally surf with a wetsuit

Having a glorious layer of neoprene between your board and your chest might not be as picturesque but it acts as a protective skin between the wax of your surfboard and your ribs.

For surfers who predominantly frequent cold water surf destinations and waves, getting into a t-shirt or a rash vest can be a bit of a shock for your ribs.

Where you previously had 3mm or 5mm of neoprene you now have 1mm of protection at most. This often happens to surfers from cold water destinations who venture to the tropics for surf trips and boat charters, a few sessions and you’ll start to notice less pain, hell if the waves are good enough you might not notice at all.

You’re very slim

The slimmer you are the more your ribs will protrude from your chest while you lay down on your surfboard. This can lead to sore ribs, particularly when you’re not wearing a wetsuit, either start chowing down more food for a new blubbery layer or read on for some tips to stop the rib abuse.

How to prevent sore ribs while surfing

Soft top surfboard – Learning to surf on a soft top surfboard is great for lots of reasons with one of them being the soft, spongy foam deck. Unlike fibreglass PU or epoxy surfboards, you get a nice soft surface for your ribs while you paddle.

This can save you lots of discomfort while you learn to surf and is less dangerous for you and other surfers.

Wetsuit top – Getting a wetsuit top to wear over your upper body in warmer climates is a surefire way of avoiding rib rash. Better yet you can save money on zinc and sunscreen by keeping your lower arms covered.

Vaseline – If the issue is more rash and skin abrasion on your ribs rather than bruising you can try rubbing some vaseline across the affected areas before you head out to surf.

This technique works really well for any surf rash from wetsuits, wetsuit tops and boardies around your neck, armpit or groin.

Body position – Poor positioning while you lie on your surfboard and paddle will quickly lead to rib pain.

Avoid chest breathing while you paddle on your board. The more you breathe into and out of your chest the more protruded your ribs become.

Try to practice breathing using your lower abdomen and stomach, not only will this alleviate your rib pain but it’s actually a much better breathing technique for endurance exercise.

Overarching your back and straining your neck while you paddle can make your rib pain worse. Try not to lift your head too high as you paddle, this will save you from any potential neck pain after you surf as well.

Rocking side to side while paddling on your board is common as you learn to surf but can rub on your ribs. This will likely improve as your balance does but consider if your board is too small and isn’t providing enough buoyancy for you to paddle.

Get a rib guard – If you consistently struggle with painful ribs during and after surfing you might want to consider a Rib Guard.

It sits underneath your wetsuit and is designed to prevent any pain while you surf, the material used inside the rib guard means it doesn’t shift around as you paddle and keeps its shape throughout even the toughest paddle outs.

Training – Building up your core muscle groups with techniques like simple strength training, pilates or yoga will all help when it comes to paddling on your board.

Try to increase the range of motion in your shoulders by going swimming once a week in the sea or at your local pool. This movement closely mimics paddling on your board and will help you next time you want to go surfing.

Check out our guide on practising surfing at home for more tips on improving your strength and fitness out the water.

Treatment for sore ribs post surfing

Ice – If you’ve severely bruised your ribs you can apply an ice pack post-surf. Hold it on the affected area as long as comfortable and try to reduce any swelling.

Antiseptic cream – If you’re rash has passed the first layer of skin you’ll probably need to treat it with some form of antiseptic, this is especially true if you’ve been surfing in water with potential sewage contamination.

Most of the time sore ribs while surfing clear up in 24 hours or so unless you’ve severely damaged them. Next time you do paddle out make sure to remember to take some of the steps above to avoid sore ribs ruining a perfectly good surf.

In conclusion

When it comes to rib pain and rib rash while surfing, prevention is always better than cure. Chances are if you’re reading this it’s already too late, but now your next surf adventure will be pain-free, leaving you to focus on your surfing.